Better approach crafting better results for KC hitters

The Royals, one of MLB's highest-scoring teams this spring, credit planning, patience

March 15th, 2023

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- The Royals’ 4-3 loss to the Rangers on Wednesday afternoon at Surprise Stadium bucked the trend we’ve seen all spring from Kansas City: A lot of runs and a lot of wins.

But even after Wednesday, the Royals (14-5) are still atop the Cactus League standings and still in the top half of baseball in several offensive categories, including OPS (.904). They have a run differential of +49. Spring stats can be misleading, of course, because players are working on different things during game action.

A good Spring Training doesn’t mean much if teams can’t carry it over to the regular season, when games matter. And the Royals have seen this before, when their Cactus League stats ballooned only to sag during the season.

So what really can we take from Cactus League results?

“The quality of at-bats has really stuck out to me,” manager Matt Quatraro said. “I think it’s more of how we’ve gotten to [the results]. The approach, they’re running the bases hard, there’s a lot of energy in the dugout. More so than the wins and losses, it’s how they’re doing it that stands out to me.”

Since his hiring, Quatraro has been impressed with the Royals’ hitting department and the success coaches Alec Zumwalt and Keoni DeRenne have had with hitters, starting in the Minors and working their way up to the Major League dugout last season.

So much of that success has come from the hitters’ approach and game-planning ahead of each game. The messaging has been consistent for the young hitters like , , , and at each level.

“It starts and ends with our two biggest mantras. Know who you are and know yourself, and swing at the pitches you can hit hard and take the ones you can’t,” Zumwalt said. “If you buy into that approach, you’re going to put yourself in position to at least get in better counts and get better pitches to hit. When we go up there with the mindset, ‘We’re going to swing at anything, put the ball in play,’ I think you have the reverse effect. You strike out more, you make weak contact. You’re 100 percent on defense. Teaching these young hitters how to understand what that guy’s got and where he uses it and know him as well as you know yourself.”

So when Zumwalt looks at the results this spring, he’s focused on the approach each hitter has at the plate and the information he has leading up to the at-bat. Prior to each game, Royals hitters are given detailed information about the pitchers they’ll face and the plan they should have against certain pitches -- what they should swing at and where in the zone they should focus.

Zumwalt and DeRenne then provide instant and in-game feedback before and after at-bats to help hitters adjust. The commitment players have to seeking out that information during a game, Quatraro said, is different than he has ever seen.

“Data’s really helpful,” Zumwalt said. “I think 'Q' even said in his initial press conference, data is used to help piece everything together. But truthfully, I don’t think any of it comes together without the relationships and the trust that we can build this.

“… We don’t just tell them it was a bad pitch, we showed them with our data where that pitch was. I think that’s a big part of this, just combining the relationships with the data.”

On Tuesday night in a 5-3 loss to the Reds, for example, Royals No. 20 prospect Peyton Wilson hit a 3-2 pitch 106 mph back at the pitcher for a lineout. Earlier that game, Massey drove a pitch 105 mph into the right-center-field gap for a double.

Both were good at-bats on pitches Massey and Wilson zeroed in on knowing they could do damage.

“When they get in the batter’s box, literally the only thing they can control is what they swing at and what they don’t,” Zumwalt said. “When they go up there with the mindset of having that strong approach, they put themselves in the best chance for success. That’s a big part of why our guys have not swung the bat as much this spring. The numbers do validate that we’re swinging less, which tells me they’re swinging more at what they want to swing at rather than just what they’re being given.”